When Mothers Kill: Interviews from Prison

When Mothers Kill: Interviews from Prison

When Mothers Kill: Interviews from Prison

When Mothers Kill: Interviews from Prison


Winner of the 2008 Outstanding Book Award by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

Michelle Oberman and Cheryl L. Meyer don't write for news magazines or prime-time investigative television shows, but the stories they tell hold the same fascination. When Mothers Kill is compelling. In a clear, direct fashion the authors recount what they have learned from interviewing women imprisoned for killing their children. Readers will be shocked and outraged as much by the violence the women have endured in their own lives as by the violence they engaged in but they will also be informed and even enlightened.

Oberman and Meyer are leading authorities on their subject. Their 2001 book, Mothers Who Kill Their Children, drew from hundreds of newspaper articles as well as from medical and social science journals to propose a comprehensive typology of maternal filicide. In that same year, driven by a desire to test their typology and to better understand child-killing women not just as types but as individuals Oberman and Meyer began interviewing women who had been incarcerated for the crime. After conducting lengthy, face-to-face interviews with forty prison inmates, they returned and selected eight women to speak with at even greater length. This new book begins with these stories, recounted in the matter-of-fact words of the inmates themselves.

There are collective themes that emerge from these individual accounts, including histories of relentless interpersonal violence, troubled relationships with parents (particularly with mothers), twisted notions of romantic love, and deep conflicts about motherhood. These themes structure the books overall narrative, which also includes an insightful examination of the social and institutional systems that have failed these women. Neither the mothers nor the authors offer these stories as excuses for these crimes.


Why would one even want to talk to a mother who killed her children? So horrific is this crime that the thought of sitting in the same room with such a person brings a twinge of revulsion, an involuntary shiver, even after having spent hours in conversation with these very women. But now, at least for us, the revulsion is directed outward, at the crime, rather than at the women themselves.

We set out to speak with mothers who kill because, after almost two decades of studying these women's cases, we realized that no one had ever really talked to them. Many had told their stories for them — experts, journalists, lawyers — but no one had ever asked the women if these stories had gotten it right, or even whether they had some thoughts of their own on what had gone wrong.

We turned to the mothers themselves, asking them to tell us their stories — not just the stories of how they killed their children but also the stories that might help us to understand why, and maybe how, it might have been prevented. We asked them to tell us their stories about who they were, before and after their crimes, stories of how they had lived, what they had expected from life and from themselves. We asked about their lives as children, as young women, and as mothers; about love and stress; and about their coping mechanisms and support systems. We asked about their experiences with the various agencies designed to support and protect vulnerable citizens and about their interactions with the criminal justice system.

We asked them these questions not because we expected that their answers somehow would be more “true” than those ascertained through the legal or health care systems. We fully expected them to tell versions of their stories that were defensive and self-serving. We asked them because we sought their unique perspective and insight into the events — their own explanations of what happened and why.

These women can tell us about their lives as they were living them in the years, weeks, and days before they killed their children. They offer us . . .

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